Face the iron hand of law
“Like the cherry blossoms falling,
So we go! So we go!
Come now, brothers, death is calling,
So we go! So we go!
Standing straight and unafraid,
So we go! So we go!
Crimson blood upon our blades,
So we go! So we go!
Like the winter turns to spring,
So we go! So we go!
For to settle everything,
So we go! So we go!
Though the Beneath awaits us all,
As sure as summer turns to fall,
We march to war and heed the call,
So we go! So we go!
-Traditional Daigundan battle anthem
“Three cheeses and five loaves of bread,” said the grimacing willow badger in Healer robes as she pawed through Zero’s belongings, including the bread and cheese he had been forced to release from Faun’s compression bombs. The badger’s brow was wrinkled in a semi-permanent frown. The skinny little ferret at her side studiously took notes on a scroll. “One loaf badly burnt,” she said, her distaste evident. “Three flasks, filled…”
“Careful.” The word of caution came from Lady Nadeshiko, standing guard over her prisoner. Zero’s wrists and ankles were shackled with heavy manacles, but she knew better than to assume he would cooperate. “Those may be from the vixen. They could be dangerous.”
“It’s milk,” said Zero, rolling his eyes heavensward. “You do still drink milk in the Order, don’t you, Milady?”
“Silence.” The floris, as ever, was in no mood for levity. “Sister Cherry, if you would, please.”
Nodding, the willow uncapped one of the flasks and brought it to her great striped muzzle to take a sniff. “It’s milk, Milady.”
“Check the others to be sure.”
“Is this really necessary?” Zero shifted in his chains. “Just send me to the Crown and get it over with.”
They stood in an enforced stone bunker near the base of the Shinju, an ugly little building that stood out like a canker amid the natural beauty of her roots. At least part of the sacred tree was visible through the barred windows of every cell… supposedly, the architect’s idea was that prisoners would be forced to contemplate the Shinju’s majesty and how they had wronged what she represented. It was a novel idea, but it grew less effective over time, especially when one had been held here as many times as Zero had.
“You will hold your tongue, Takaishi, unless I direct you otherwise!” snapped Nadeshiko.
“They’re all milk, Milady,” the badger reported.
“Hmph. Carry on.”
“A dozen small kunai throwing knives.” said Cherry. The ferret scribe’s pen scratched away.
Brilliant green eyes bored into Zero. “And what are those for, may I ask?”
“Escaping,” said Zero with a devious grin. It wouldn’t help his case, but he couldn’t resist.
Nadeshiko tapped one armored foot against the floor, a growl rising somewhere deep in her throat. Her eyes remained locked on the buck, daring him to try something.
“One traveling cloak,” Cherry continued, “and one katana and scabbard. Old design, but still sharp.”
That was enough. Nadeshiko stomped over to the table and snatched up the sword. “I don’t see why you have need of this anymore, ronin,” she hissed between clenched teeth. Her ears lay almost flat. “Brother Calcite, if you would please begin a requisition form. We shall return this to the Daigundan where it belongs, and where it cannot cause any more—”
“Put it down.” Something changed behind Zero’s eyes. His humor and flippant attitude vanished, and he spoke with a hard, commanding tone.
The ferret scribe, Calcite, almost dropped his pen in abject shock.
“Pardon me?!” The Vice-Mistress stepped forward, putting a hand on the hilt of her greatsword. “You do not make demands of me, Takaishi!”
“That’s not a Daigundan sword.” The young buck’s words were deadly soft, calm as the surface of a summer lake. “It’s a family heirloom. Put it down.”
At this, Cherry stepped forward, putting a hand on her Commander’s pauldron. A fight was threatening to break out, and she had a moral obligation to at least try to prevent it. “Milady, if what he says is true, we really can’t claim the sword, even with a proper requisition form.”
“You trespass into Unify,” Nadeshiko spat at her prisoner, bristling with rage, “bearing arms, damaging property, causing chaos, and stealing food—”
“The food isn’t stolen.” Now it was Zero’s turn to glare at her. His voice never wavered. “It was all bought and paid for, and the sword is mine. It belongs to the Takaishi family. Check the registry if you don’t believe me. You of all people should understand family inheritance, Milady… I wouldn’t lie about this. It belongs to me, and if you try to take it, I swear I’ll make you regret it, Outcast or not.”
Now Calcite did drop his pen. “You are speaking to the Vice-Mistress of the Silver Order, you brazen cur!” As he spoke, his chest swelled up beneath his robes. “I suggest you mind your mann—”
“Hold, Brother Calcite,” said Nadeshiko, raising an arm.
Silence fell as the adversaries stared each other down, neither willing to blink first.
To the astonishment of the badger and ferret, it was Nadeshiko who broke the standoff. “Cancel the requisition.”
“That is an order, Brother.” Nadeshiko fumed in place, her already bad temper looking to worsen in short order. “You may reclaim your sword once your sentence is served, Takaishi, against my better judgment. This food, however…” Her eyes narrowed. “You claim someone bought it for you? Who would this person be? Can they verify that it is indeed yours?”
Zero gritted his teeth. Letting Naole be punished for his faults was out of the question… if Nadeshiko took word back to her mother, his sister would lose her position in the Order in the best of cases, and be exiled to starve along with him at worst. The choice was clear. “That was a lie,” he said, as evenly as he could. “I admit it, I stole the food.”
“I suspected as much, you keeping company with that guttersnipe of a vixen.” Turning sharply on her heel, Nadeshiko whirled to face her scribe. “Brother Calcite, re-add theft to the list of charges, then scroll the Magistrate Representatives. Please inform them that Takaishi will be present in the Crown shortly.”
“When you are finished, please scroll all of the remaining squadrons in the Marketplace… tell the Captains to keep watch for the vixen and badger. If Takaishi is here, it stands to reason that they must be as well. Search all the usual places, and inform the watchers on the walls not to leave their posts until the three of them are found.”
Sagging in his chains, Zero let out a breath. His gambit had worked, but the food was now lost. Worse still, his sentencing before the Representatives loomed in his near future. Being shackled and jailed, that he could cope with well enough. Being browbeaten by the Magistrate, though…
At least the others might still get away.
Chaos reigned in the Marketplace. Sentients of every stripe ran to and fro in a panic, overturning carts and shoving each other out of the way. Every few seconds, a sharp bang would be heard, and a puff of colorful smoke would erupt from a random spot: behind a curtain, underneath a bench, from atop an awning… there was no rhyme or reason to where the smoke bombs were placed, no telling where the next cloud would appear. As a result, the fleeing shoppers were prone to run in one direction for only a few paces, and then be startled by another explosion, turn around, and run a different way… and the cycle would repeat itself.
The only two who kept a relatively straight path in their flight were Faun and Hanami, charging on ahead in search of a place to hide.
“Faun, please, slow down!” begged Hanami, stumbling over one of her sandals yet again.
“No time, kitto!” The vixen yelled back over her shoulder as she hauled Hanami on by her wrist. Without slowing down, she reached into her boom belt and threw another handful of bombs, scattering them in all directions. “They’re being really persistent this time! We’ve gotta ditch them before more of them show up!” Her hand flew back to the bandolier’s pocket. “Damn, I’m running low on smokers… time for some variety, I guess!”
“V-variety?” Hanami tried and failed to hide her growing horror. It seemed to her that Faun was causing quite enough trouble just with the relatively harmless smoke bombs.
“Spice of life!” said Faun, grinning and flashing a wink. “These ought to slow them down… Oi, fleabait!” she called back at the furious Order knight closest on their tails. “Catch!”
“HALT!” roared the knight, a brawny jillrabbit far too enraged to think of anything other than wringing the vixen’s neck. She took no notice the half-dozen little black spheres now spread before her in the street. “You are bound by law to—” That was all she got out; her armored boot came down on three of the bombs, she heard a deafening bang, and a cascade of multicolored ribbons seized her limbs and pulled tight. Hopelessly entangled, she let loose a blistering torrent of curses before the ribbons wound around her muzzle, muffling the rest of her tirade as she dropped to earth like a stone. The last she heard of the vixen was her wild, barking laugh.
“Please…” Hanami fought for breath, her legs aching and her lungs burning. Just yesterday, she had run for such a long time that she swore to herself when she stopped that she would never try to run long distances again. Not even a day later, and already that promise was broken. “Got to find… a place… to hide…!” Her free hand moved under the hood of her cloak.
“I’m with you there,” said Faun, “but where?”
“Alley!” said Hanami, pointing ahead. “On the left… behind the bush!”
“What bu—” Faun blinked; at the turn coming up fast, there was a flowering privet bush growing in a strange position, blocking most of the alley behind it from view. “Never mind, jump!”
The two cleared the bush’s branches with only millimeters to spare, landing in a heap in the dusty space between a dance hall and a public bath. Seconds later, an entire squadron of Order knights thundered past… followed in minutes by an incensed jillrabbit who lagged behind, still swearing and pulling tatters of ribbons out of the crevices between her armor plating. Finally, there was relative silence.
“Whew!” Faun breathed, leaning back against the bath house’s wall. “Good thing about that bush! Gods, that was close.”
Hanami couldn’t answer just yet. She heaved in great, greedy lungfuls of air, her hands on her knees, trying desperately not to be sick.
Faun smirked and bounced her eyebrows. “Having fun?”
“You…!” She wanted to be angry, she truly did… but despite everything, Hanami began to laugh, though doing so left her even more out of breath. She slid down the bathhouse wall clutching her sides, her laughter ringing off the old brick walls. It was just so ridiculous… yesterday, she was just a relatively normal citizen trying to get by, and today? Today she was on the run from an entire squadron of the Silver Order with a pyromaniac vixen. What a world.
“That’s the spirit,” said Faun, smiling as she dug into one of her pouches. “Now then, with the tin cans crawling all over the place, we can’t exactly waltz up to the fountain. I think disguises are in order.”
“D-Disguises?” said Hanami, wiping a tear from one eye and suppressing another fit of giggles.
“Mmm-hmm. Nothing too fancy, just something that will get us past the knights and out of Unify. Let’s see…” Bang went a bomb as she eyed Hanami up and down. “You’re about… what, five centimeters shorter than me? Yeah, this should work.” Out of a cloud of thinning smoke came two thick sheets of indigo fabric, embroidered with golden thread and smelling slightly of gunpowder. “Ditch your cloak and put this on.”
Hanami did; the garment was a heavy, concealing robe, with an integrated veil sewn into the hood. It was almost like a—“Faun, are these florins’ robes?”
“Got it in one, kitto. I did a favor for a skunk some months ago who didn’t have the money to pay me, so he gave me some of his spare robes. Must’ve caught hell for it from his mate, or his mistress, or whoever he was with… but it’s his loss and our gain.” Faun slipped into her own with practiced ease, drawing up her own hood and veil. “Hmmm,” she said as she looked herself over. “It’s not bad, but we still look too much like… well, us.”
They did at that, Hanami had to agree. The robes were heavy, but the shape Faun’s figure underneath could hardly be considered masculine… and her bushy, fiery orange tail with its cream-colored tip poking out the back wouldn’t fool anyone but a blind person.
“This calls for some adjustments, I think,” said Faun. A second bang, and now she had a dozen tiny pots and vials and a series of equally small brushes before her, some of them still smoking a bit. “Let’s see… shredded rice paper, flour, soot, powdered ink, fake fur… now where are the-? Oh right, fifteenth pocket.” Bang. “Here, catch.”
Blinking, Hanami caught the lumpy pillow that Faun threw at her without looking. Already there were three others like it, which Faun stacked at her side. “What is all this?”
The gleam in Faun’s eyes was visible even in the shade of her hood. “What do you think? You and I are about to become a fine pair of florins.” She snatched one brush, dipped it in a vial, and brandished it at Hanami, who took a nervous step backward. “Hope you’re not ticklish, kitto,” said Faun. “I need you to hold still.”
Among the shelves of Unify’s fabled Ubamegashi Central Library, a mountain of books appeared to be making its way down aisles and past the patrons, teetering back and forth and threatening to collapse at any moment. “Your pardon,” came a baritone voice from behind the mountain. “Terribly sorry. Excuse me, Madam.” Every few steps, a huge white hand partly shrouded by the folds of a simple traveling cloak would peek out from the rear of the books, snatch another volume from a shelf, and add it to the ever-growing stack. “I beg your pardon, sir,” said the baritone after nearly knocking over a passing raccoon. “I shall be out of your way momentarily.”
Rowan loved everything about this place: not just the countless numbers of books and scrolls, so many that even he could never hope to read them all in one lifetime… though that was admittedly a large part of the appeal. He loved the way the thick earthen walls muffled the incessant noise of the Marketplace outside. Ubamegashi was partly underground out of necessity; there was no space to hold its ever-expanding collection on street level. That suited him just fine; badgers had always lived close to the earth. In ancient times, his kind even preferred a cozy, hollowed-out sett to an aboveground den or drey like a fox or squirrel would have…
He loved the smell, the rich, woody scent of parchment and rice paper, and the spice of oil lanterns set in braces along the walls. Of course, one couldn’t use real fire down here, not with all the priceless books, scrolls, and papers around. The ferrets, Gods bless them, had used their unequaled skill in the art of magic to give the world fireproof, enchanted glass. Of course, such glass was expensive, and properly enchanting it consumed quite a lot of time… so a particularly clever mage named Agate suggested using heat spellstones in the lanterns, bound with an illusion of flames, providing warmth without the danger of actual fire. He followed that by somehow adding the scent of burning lantern oil to the mix, just for authenticity’s sake. Rowan thought he deserved a statue in his honor.
He loved the sounds… gentle whispers and gasps of delight as sentients discovered new treasures, shushing from Madam Bristlecone, the old willow librarian at the desk, aimed at those exceeding her preferred noise level, the crinkling of pages being turned, and the soft cracks from the spines of new books being opened for the very first time.
Best of all, the library was well-stocked with squashy, overstuffed armchairs, all situated near enough to light sources that one could sit and read for hours without straining one’s eyes. If there was paradise to be found beyond the mortal coil, Rowan thought, it had to be a place like this.
His back was giving him trouble, though. The badger made his way to his favorite chair, miraculously unoccupied, and set his mountain of books on the table before him. Sounds of protest from his spine broke the silence in his vicinity as he straightened up, grimacing… Perhaps he had overdone it a bit.
No matter. Shrugging to himself, Rowan took a book off the pile at random and glanced at the cover: Developments and Advances in Lepine Architecture. “Perfect,” he said to himself, his striped muzzle splitting into a wide smile. He allowed himself to fall backward onto the chair’s cushion, opened the book, took a deep breath of that glorious old paper scent, and opened his prize.
No more than five minutes later, the library’s peace was shattered entirely. Clanking metallic footsteps resounded off the clay walls as a dozen Order knights streamed in, oblivious to the death glares Madam Bristlecone shot at them from the safety of her desk.
“No one move!” roared the squadron leader, a todd who had chosen to dye his dark hair with streaks of lime green, for Gods knew what reason. “We’re here on official business from the Silver Order! Dangerous criminals are loose in—”
Before he could continue, Rowan rose from his chair and threw off the hood of his cloak, raising his hands and fixing the fox with a glare every bit as venomous as Madam Bristlecone’s. “If you please,” he said, as calmly and evenly as he could, “Might we go through this farce without any more disruption to the patrons? This is a library.”
Rowan saw the fox’s eyes scan up his considerable height, and a sneer beginning to play on his lips. The expression disappeared in a hurry when Rowan shrugged his shoulders, parting the folds of the cloak and revealing the plates of his armor, and a few of the many, many spikes protruding from the hammer of his morning star slung on his back. That hammer was larger than a few good-sized boulders he had seen.
To his surprise and immense relief, Rowan calmly extended his wrists to be manacled. “Madam Bristlecone,” he said with immense regret to the librarian, “I sincerely apologize for leaving all those books for you to shelve…”
The fox stared back and forth between them, his tail bristling. “Madam, are you telling me that you knew this scoundrel was here?!”
Bristlecone scowled through her oversized spectacles. “Damned right I did,” she said, in a creaky, strained voice that nonetheless implied that she wouldn’t tolerate him much longer. “He has a card, and always returns on time. What else he’s done is none of my concern.”
“Madam Bristlecone, please don’t feel the need to—”
“Madam,” sputtered the fox, “if you’ve knowingly sheltered him, you are aiding and comforting an admitted criminal—”
“Listen here,” said Bristlecone. That creaky, strained voice suddenly developed an undercurrent of cold steel. “He has a card, and you don’t. If you aren’t out my library in the next thirty seconds, I shall not only force you out, but I shall inform Lady Lily of your boorish behavior… who shall inform your mother in kind. Suppose Lady Elinor might be interested to know what you’ve done to that hair, eh, Captain?”
“You-” stammered the fox, his ears drooping and his tail falling flat. “H-how did you even know—”
“Thank you, Madam,” said Rowan with a gentle smile, “but you need not trouble yourself further. I shall be on my way. Many apologies for the noise.”
“Don’t you worry.” The old willow titled her spectacles at him. “Not your fault some people have no manners. I’ll make sure something gets sent your way while you cool your heels.”
“I am in your debt, Madam.” Rowan bowed his head and followed the fox back to his squadron, giving no resistance as they slapped the manacles on him and read him the usual proclamations of his crimes. He noted with some amusement that both the captain and his squadmates gave him an unusually wide berth, even after the chains were secured. A thought occurred to him that it might be even more amusing to snap his jaws at one, and give them a good scare—
Gods, he thought with a bemused shake of his head as he dismissed the notion. I’m beginning to think like the vixen. How appalling.
Somewhere in the darkest depths of Tasakeru, the ancient white wolf called Drake plodded forward down a random path through the undergrowth, as if he didn’t know or care where his feet were taking him. One destination was more or less the same as any other, in his opinion… no matter where he went, no matter how far he walked, the same memories would follow him. So he put one foot in front of the other with methodical slowness, feeling the way ahead with his knobbly walking stick.
Drake’s senses, so finely tuned in his youth long ago, were dulled and rusty with disuse. He was hard of hearing, half-blind despite the strange, youthful clearness of his golden eyes, and he might as well be mute too for all that he used his voice these days. About the only thing that still worked right was his nose… it sent him a constant, unwanted barrage of information that the wolf did his best to ignore. Nothing his senses told him mattered. All that mattered was to keep going forward. One foot in front of the other. Left foot, take a step. Right foot, take a step. Left foot, take a step…
If he noticed the watchers in the branches above, he made no sign of caring. They muttered to each other in low, confused tones. Normally, wolves were dangerous, they said to each other, not worth hunting. This one, though… they had been tailing him for upwards of an hour, growing more and more brazen until they weren’t even bothering to muffle the sounds of their approach anymore. Yet he paid them no attention at all, if he even noticed them. Hesitantly, one of the watchers send a message to the mind: Take?
No, the mind answered. Too old. Eat.
They needed no further prompting. A dozen wood spiders leaped from their perches, screaming with delight as they fell upon the old wolf, driving him to the forest floor and burying him beneath a dozen hairy bodies. Fangs glistened in the dark…
Never before had Hanami felt more sympathy for male skunks. Even on a late summer evening, when the air was cooler than it had been all day, the florins’ robes were sweltering hot, and she longed to tear them off and breathe normally. It didn’t help that the robes were stuffed with thick pillows, flattening the shape of her hips and chest to better pass as a slightly overweight male. Her tail was squashed up against her back, the false one Faun had made out of water, flour, shredded paper, and fake fur constantly dragged behind her and slowed her down, and the stuff on her face… Faun had already snatched her free hand six times to keep her from rubbing it off. It was a fine powder, applied to the fur around her eyes and muzzle so that anyone who looked too close would see a skunk’s coloration underneath her hooded veil. It itched and tingled constantly, making her eyes water and giving her a desperate need to sneeze… She couldn’t even scratch at her nose, as her other arm was wrapped around their bags of food from the Marketplace, retrieved on the sly from Fools Rush when the Order had cleared out.
“Dijo, we’re almost there,” muttered the “florin” next to her in Faun’s voice. The vixen risked lifting her veil long enough to shoot Hanami a confident wink. She had applied the powder to her face as well, but she seemed unbothered by itching or the need to sneeze… “Just hang on a little longer.”
Miserable as she was, Hanami couldn’t help but marvel at how well the disguises were working. As they milled their way through the evening shoppers a block away from Minerva’s Fountain, barely anyone gave them a second glance. Order knights, Daigundan samurai, and even a few Praetors merely smiled and nodded, letting them pass… Hanami noted with some amusement that one Order captain had been in the process of putting up a flyer on a notice board with a drawing of Faun and the words “WANTED FOR IMMEDIATE ARREST AND DETENTION” as they walked by, and all he did was grin and tip the visor of his helmet in their direction. Right under his nose, even.
It was a little less crowded in the vicinity of the fountain, thank heaven… Hanami was growing sick of being jostled and bumped against. Fountain Square was more a recreational area than one for shopping. There were still a number of squadrons of the various factions gathered here and there in tight little knots, shooting reproachful glares at one another when the others weren’t looking, but it was clear that whatever information they had about the Outcasts, it indicated they would stay to the more populous areas of the Marketplace. None of them were watching the fountain at the moment; they were focused on the streets and avenues that led to it.
As slowly and casually as possible, they approached the basin of the reflecting pool in which the towering statue of Minerva the Brazen stood, pictured in the middle of her frenzied dance. The peak of the fountain’s spray jutted from the flowing piece of marble fabric that represented what had once been her dress, which she had torn off and whirled about her head in a sudden fit of giddy ecstasy during an otherwise somber moment of inter-species community worship… or so the legend went, anyway. The foxes thought of her as a folk hero, absolutely worthy of having not just this fountain but many other notable places and things named after her. Others, such as the badgers, for example, argued tooth and claw against honoring such a figure in any way, and looked upon both the statue and the fountain as hideous eyesores.
In front of the basin, there was a small group of wolf pups batting a tailball back and forth, giggling and laughing whenever they strayed into the falling water. A little jillrabbit in a sackcloth dress watched enviously from the sidelines; there was no way she could play with her stubby little cottontail. Three older wolves, obviously the pups’ family judging by the similarity of the pack markings dyed into their fur, hung around close by, occasionally glancing up from a map to check on the children. A lone ferret swept the cobblestones with a broom, and a squirrel with her hair in a topknot leaned against an awning with her nose in a book, but other than those…
“Stripehead’s not here,” muttered Faun. She glanced upward to check the position of the sun. “It’s nearly six, he should have been here long before now…”
“Maybe he did come, but he left when he saw we weren’t there?” said Hanami, trying not to fidget. There was a fine spray of water from the fountain on her back, but the robes and pillows were so thick that she could barely even feel it. If only she could take them off, just for a moment… She shifted the bags of food from one arm to the other.
One of the pups screamed with delight and dove for cover as another smacked the ball directly at his face.
“Can’t be the case,” said Faun. Her heel beat a rapid, staccato rhythm against the cobblestone at her feet. “He knows better than that. Gods, I bet he’s still at that damned library, working his way through a dictionary or something. Bet he doesn’t even realize what time it is. Typical.”
“Should we go there to look for him?”
“No way, kitto. If he does show and doesn’t find us here, we’ll be even more pinched.”
They waited, and waited, but still no Rowan.
Around them, the pups continued their game, which had degenerated from a proper game of tailball to simply hurling the ball at each other as hard as they could. One pitch sent it shooting toward Hanami like a low-flying meteor… she ducked, nearly losing her grip on her bags, and one happy, soggy, nearly naked pup dove past her legs to retrieve the ball and send it back. “Sorry,” said the wolf, bowing so quickly that it was doubtful if he was sorry at all.
Then he felt something sticky clinging to the pads of his feet, and looked down. His eyes grew wide in horror.
There was a pool of water and thick white ooze congealing around the feet of the two florins, mixed with mounds of black and white fur. Yet neither of them seemed to notice…
“Maaaaaa!” The wolf hollered loud enough for the whole square to hear, scrambling backward with his every hair on end. “Those guys’ tails are melting!”
It seemed that every knight and samurai within five blocks came streaming toward the fountain, and within seconds, Hanami and Faun found themselves at the points of dozens of swords and spears. The little wolf was safely behind the crowd of peacekeepers, sobbing into his mother’s leg.
Hanami’s ears pressed flat against her skull, and she let out a small, defeated moan.
Faun gave the little snitch a withering death glare as she tore off her hood and veil and slowly put her hands up. “Well, mange,” she said.
END OF CHAPTER 6
 Ronin (ROW-neen): Old Standard term for a rogue samurai without a master or formal rank in the Daigundan; used here as an insult roughly analogous to “vagrant” or “thug”.